This movie’s inability to live up to its potential is nearly as epic as its misleading title. In other hands, “Freedomland” might have played a jazz-like riff of personal loss and moving vignettes against the 4/4 beat of racial injustice and a community searching for peace. As it is the metronome pace clicks between black and white simplifications; further marred by jarring monologues and an out of place score.
The performances are fine and there are individual moments of insight and power, especially a monologue by “The Sopranos'” Edie Falco as the mother of a missing child. And it deserves credit for its willingness to take on issues of race and poverty and personal responsibility that most studio movies use only for shock value if they address them at all. But the uncertain transfer from novel to screenplay is ultimately so off-key that moments intended to be touching elicited laughter from the audience in the theater.
When single-mom Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), pale as a moonbeam, wanders in a daze to a community emergency room. Her bloodied hands and story of being carjacked by a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt bring her to the attention of the police and in particular to good cop, Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson). Brenda is not easy in her role as accuser.
She drifts in and out of focus as she struggles with evident shock and uncertainty about being the center of attention. Lorenzo gently tries lead her into a place where she can help the investigation, though he is not sure he trusts her. But he wants to find her son and as tensions build he wants to end the mounting frustration of the nearby projects, locked-down until someone confesses to the crime.
Brenda is unusual because she lives in the white community but works in the projects, where her son is the only white child in the classroom. She does not feel at home in either community. Her family made her feel incompetent. Some of the people in the projects think of her kindly, but as racial tensions mount, she is quickly assigned to the enemy camp.
Both the neighboring black and communities are policed by heavy-handed cops. One of them is Brenda’s brother Danny (Ron Eldard), furious and frustrated and with no compunctions about abandoning the rules to find out what is going on. He and some of he other white cops seem happy to provoke and then beat the young black men suspected of a range of tenuous offences.
Brenda, a pre-school assistant who works with the kids of the projects, is both in and out of the community just as Lorenzo is neither one place nor another in his role as cop and self-styled father-figure. Both Moore and Jackson turn in fine performances although they cannot surmount the awkwardness of their dialogue or the artificiality of their scripted actions. Ultimately it feels like one of those “ripped from the headline” “Law and Order” episodes that provide faux insights into superficial renditions of stories that are ripped-off from the headlines instead of being based on the reality.
The firm, steady presence of Karen Collucci (Falco), a leader of a volunteer group that looks for lost children gives a glimpse of what an interesting movie this could have been if it had not faltered under director Joe Roth’s self-conscious ambitions, as admirable as those ambitions are. The title refers to an abandoned juvenile facility Karen brings Brenda to so they can look for her son, its name an ironic reminder of the absence of freedom all of the characters face.
The jarring notes that these actors are asked to play distract the ear from the bittersweet melody this movie could have been and its conclusion is awkward and disappointingly unsupported.
Parents should know that this movie deals with mature themes and issues including racial injustice, parental neglect, spousal abuse, child endangerment, accusations based on race, police brutality, and race riots ignited by mutual distrust. There are references to the sexuality of a lonely woman, an oblique reference to rape, discussion of infidelity and to an inter-racial affair. Characters use strong language and frequent expletives, including the n-word. A character refers to a drug addiction, to using drugs and another is arrested for possession. There is near-constant peril as a community builds toward rioting and as cops try to beat out confessions. A character discusses losing her child and another is visibly wrecked by the death of her child.
Families who see this movie might wish to discuss the relationship between Lorenzo and his son and how it highlights his relationships with others. Also, several characters describe the source of their actions as something that comes from beyond them, such as Lorenzo’s religious faith, what is the driver of their actions and how do they make sense of their choices? Lorenzo and Karen resspond to tragedies and devastating failures by finding a way to help others. Is there a time that approach worked for you or someone you know?
Families that enjoy this movie might want to see other movies that wrestle with racial issues and police involvement in community crimes such as Crash. They also might wish to see Clockers or The Wanderers, also based on books by Richard Price.
Thanks to guest critic AME.